Minutes before 'Circumstance's' acquisition by Participant Media was announced, SF Film Society Director of Filmmaker Services Michele Turnure-Salleo (center) and writer/director Maryam Keshavarz (right) share a moment with Bay Area producer Jennifer Chaiken at the annual party at Sundance hosted...

SF360 Live at Sundance: Strange and Charmed Visions

SFFS Staff January 25, 2011

Sundance Surreality

If you wanted, you could say that Calvin Lee Reeder channels the love child of Dario Argento and Maya Deren in his conception of The Oregonian. You could say that, but it would just be fancy way of expressing that he is presenting a kind of surrealism. The film accesses and offers things from beneath the underneath—the subconscious. As Trevor Groth mentioned at the introduction, “It’s difficult to describe the film, but it might be enough to say, ‘It’s like a nightmare that you don’t want to leave.'” A sort of dreamscape—weirdness. It does feel like a return—a return of the repressed, the attempts of a deranged mind to understand itself.

It’s very American—the love of the surreal. But, in a way, The Oregonian is distinct from the emergence of another sort of weirdness that one can see in independently minded American films here at the Sundance Film Festival. Three films in particular offer strange and charmed visions that I would argue defy the too often applied label of “surreal.” Letters from the Big Man, Uncle Kent and (arguably) The Future all in their own way offer a look at truly bizarre situations without resorting to an aesthetic that asks one to survey a detached and alienated consciousness to make sense of the situations. The stories in these films don’t bubble up from neuroses, but like the Sasquatch in Letters are apparently already there in the open, and all you need to do is look and be open to them. These movies are about the dumbness of bodies, what’s right in front of you, being stuck and believing in something material. I don’t have one word for all of that.

Sean Uyehara, Programmer, San Francisco Film Society

Mesmerizing 'Circumstance'

As I sat in the Library Theatre yesterday morning, two unusually gorgeous young women sitting directly behind me intermittently wept, giggled and laughed boisterously whilst clasping hands tightly. Under any other circumstances I might have turned to shush them, but these women were actresses Sarah Kazemy and Nikohl Boosheri and were watching their film Circumstance for the very first time. After hearing that I had seen a work-in-progress screening of the film back in San Francisco in November, they asked me nervously if it was good. “Are you kidding?!” I replied. “Its bloody amazing!”

, a project the Film Society supported through a SFFS/Kenneth Rainin Foundation Filmmaking grant, arrived on our doorstep as director Maryam Keshavarz’s post-production grant application. The synopsis was intriguing and the work sample mesmerizing. The film tells the story of Atafeh and Shireen, two spirited teenagers coming of age in Tehran and coming to terms with their burgeoning attraction and attachment to each other. It goes without saying that contemporary Iran is a dangerous place for sexual experimentation, as the girls discover painfully for themselves. Full of beauty and unabashed sensuality, this film marks the arrival of a remarkably assured director and an important new voice in world cinema. We granted Maryam Keshavarz $50,000 towards postproduction costs knowing full well that her film was a winner. Sitting in the audience hearing the laughter and silence, I felt both lucky and proud that we were able to contribute to the success of such a magical and impressive first feature film.

Participant Media acquired North American rights to Circumstance.

—Michele Turnure-Salleo, Director of Filmmaker Services, San Francisco Film Society

A Place at the Table? '!Women Art Revolution,' 'Miss Representation'

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s !Women Art Revolution, which premiered at Toronto in September and is now playing Sundance, offers remarkable footage and covers an enormous swath of territory, in revealing (to paraphrase the film's web site) how the feminist art movement transformed the art and culture of our times. It’s great to have the spotlight shine on so many women artists that you might otherwise have forgotten existed, or never knew about to begin with. Because it’s true, what you hear frequently in the documentary, that, not surprisingly, the art world is oppressively and persistently patriarchal.  Women artists and their work for the most part disappear into oblivion: They/we struggle to get shows, get recognition, get reviewed, just be seen, let alone make it into the canon alongside male peers.

I remember going to see Judy Chicago’s "The Dinner Party" at the SF Museum of Modern Art in 1979. Hershman Leeson’s film unearths shocking footage of Congressional hearings in which representatives argued for a bill to outlaw "The Dinner Party" exhibition planned in Washington, DC.  Crazy.

Susannah Greason Robbins, executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission (left) and Jennifer Siebel Newsom enjoy the premiere of Siebel Newsom's 'Miss Representation.'HILARY HART/SFFS

Not only do current women artists need to see this film to know how their work fits into the lexicon of the last 40 years of women’s art, but all artists, especially men, should  educate themselves about this otherwise lost chapter in the history of contemporary art.

On the subject: Miss Representation, Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s film, also concerns women and feminism.  Jen leveraged her considerable access to celebrities, academicians and politicians in this film that aspires to change the way women and girls are portrayed in media. Gloria Steinem and Geena Davis were among the many interviewees that attended the premiere, and who spoke at a small and inspiring panel afterwards.

The statistics quoted in the film were beyond grim, the images horrifying. Not a lot of progress has occurred since 1979….Yeah, Reagan taking office marks a turning point in terms of media deregulation and the sequelae. “Sequelae” is a word I learned when I worked in a hospital and means the pathological conditions resulting from disease, injury, or other trauma. The Reagan Era resulted in a rolling back of the clock in so many ways that it really was traumatic in terms of women’s issues. Pretty depressing. Check out missrepresentation.org to find out how you can get involved in their five-year social change campaign.

Kim Bender, Director, Foundations & Major Gifts, San Francisco Film Society

'The Interruptors' Offers Break in Violence Cycle

Few documentarians can frame a shot as artfully as Steve James, and few can tell a complex story with as much breadth and depth. This sometimes means a long film; in the case of The Interrupters it means two hours and forty minutes. On a brisk sunny morning as I was staring wistfully at the snow-covered mountains, that seemed like a lot of time. But then I remembered how deeply affected I had been by James’ 1994 film Hoop Dreams, his exquisitely artful and ultimately devastating portrait of families living in Chicago’s south side. Their sons were born to play basketball and, perhaps, to deliver their families from mean streets and grinding poverty. The sons and daughters we meet in The Interrupters have no such prospects. A statistic: month by month, more young American men are gunned down on the streets of Chicago than were killed at the height of the war in Iraq. Through The Interrupters we come to know these young men, their little brothers, their mothers. James invites us to regard urban violence as a preventable disease, for which the most effective means to eradicate it lies in changing peoples' behavior. The film tells the moving story of three dedicated individuals—“violence interrupters”—who directly intervene in conflicts before they explode into violence. They work for an innovative organization called CeaseFire, the brainchild of epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, veteran of the war against AIDS and cholera in Africa. The fearless and charismatic Ameena Mathews, the daughter of one of Chicago’s most notorious gang leaders, was herself once a drug peddler. Cobe Williams’ father was gunned down when he was 12, and he spent his formative years shuttling in and out of prison. Eddie Bocanegra committed murder when he was 17, and now has dedicated his life to his work as an “interrupter” for CeaseFire as a form of repentance. As James writes in the film’s synopsis, “Their work is fraught with moral quandaries... They need to acknowledge people’s grievances while simultaneously pulling them back from acting on them. As they venture into their communities, they confront the importance of family, the noxious nature of poverty, and the place of race.” James and his small crew shadowed these three for a year, shooting more than 300 hours of footage.

'On the Ice' got a warm reception at its premiere screening. MICHAEL READ/SFF

Time and again the young perpetrators of violence, seeking tit-for-tat revenge for an act of violence or retaliation for a perceived slight, remark that “nothing can be done about it.” Sadly, this perspective is ingrained throughout a society that seeks to keep violence contained, but takes little action to treat the disease. This film demonstrates that, through the selfless dedication of it subjects, that the cycle of violence can and must be broken.

Michael Read, Publications Manager, San Francisco Film Society

Finding an Arctic Outpost in Park City via 'On the Ice'

Yesterday, my first full day on the ground in Park City, started with a whimper and ended with a bang. In the morning I passed the time by taking in back-to-back press screenings. The Music Never Stopped is a tearjerker about a chronic amnesiac who reconnects with his father by listening to Grateful Dead records with him. After that, against my better judgement, I wandered into Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil, a depraved revenge thriller touted as “one of the most graphically extreme films ever committed to film.” Ravaged and craving nuance, my relief was palpable as I took my seat at the world premiere of On the Ice. A festival insider gave me the poop that this film is an early favorite to win the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic category. Like last year’s winner Winter’s Bone, On the Ice sets its universal story within a landscape and culture that is exotic to most viewers. In the arctic outpost of Barrow, Alaska, one of the northernmost cities of the world, three teenaged Iñupiaq boys get into trouble out on the ice and only two of them return. The web of deceit they weave to cover their tracks sends shockwaves through the small town. Immensely appealing performances by the nonprofessional cast and a script that’s tight as a drum leads me to place my bet on this film to be a breakaway favorite both on the festival circuit and beyond. At the post-screening Q&A first time director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean assembled his cast and crew, most of whom had just seen the finished film for the first time. The two young leads Josiah Patkotak and Frank Qutuq Irelan grinned and clapped each others shoulders and jabbed fists. It was easy to see that the experience of making this film had bonded them for life.

Michael Read

Getting 'Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology'

Caught the premiere of Tiffany Shlain’s movie Connected with a very receptive audience at the Temple Theater. The film weaves Tiffany’s documentation of her famous dad Leonard Shlain’s last nine months and her high-risk pregnancy as narrative devices to explore the connection of those real time events with all things 21st century really, and the history of mankind and existence. Ambitious. Some video footage of interviews with her dad, lots of home movies from her childhood, sonograms of the growing baby, and mostly footage she and her team found on the Internet. The film is upbeat and hopeful, personal and universal. It does a great job of making connections between so many things on so many levels, it was dizzying at times. But Shlain's team, including her husband, physicist Ken Goldberg, gave the film a structure and shape. I was happy that someone in our midst is making a case for staying positive about modern life, and how the Internet can possibly be a tool for slowing or even turning around our self-destructiveness—as a species. Shlain's enthusiasm is contagious.

Kim Bender

'Here' and Now

The Sundance premiere of Braden King’s gorgeous road movie Here surprised me. This was surprising in and of itself, as I have been tracking the project for a couple of years and thought that I fully knew what to expect.

Here, a San Francisco Film Society fiscally-sponsored project, concerns a satellite-mapping engineer working in Armenia who meets a recently-returned photographer; the two impulsively decide to travel together, mapping and photographing the landscape while nurturing a complex romance along the way.

I had heard the crazy shooting-in-Armenia production stories. I had seen clips from the rough cut and had closely tracked the film’s progress. But sitting at the Library Center Theatre for the premiere, surrounded by cast and crew, it was a thrill to feel that it was all new to me. Actors Ben Foster and Lubna Azabal draw you in with intimate performances and great chemistry. And best of all, their characters’ struggle with a sense of place and identity touched me in ways I didn’t expect, and left me dreaming of open spaces.

—Michele Turnure-Salleo

The View from Day One

Just to clear the air, Day One is not necessarily the first day you are going to actually see a film at Sundance. Most of the people I know did not see a “day one” film. Instead, they got here. They got settled in their condos or on someone’s floor. They got their press or industry credentials. And they figured out it’s really, really cold, and the altitude is really a bitch.

—Kim Bender

Making Adjustments, Day Zero

When I’m feeling generous here or anywhere else, the general populus looks very hopeful to me. I smile. People smile back. I forgive their bad make-up and haircuts, their flashy snow boots and annoying good looks. I am happy for them that they made it here, that we made it here together, right? We’re experiencing a collective gestalt that will influence this year’s film watching around the world. And every year a handful of filmmakers’ lives will be changed by how this audience sitting with me now on the shuttle, people from all over the world who care about film, responds to their films. It’s a big deal, even if their films don’t get distribution right away.

That’s the good part about Sundance.

Sometimes, though, you don’t get a good night’s sleep, or maybe you had a fight with your partner before you left him or her at home to take care of all the real life crap while you watch movies and/or network and/or schmooze for a week. Or maybe, you are hoping that for the next week in Park City your life will be a tiny bit better than it is at home.

Maybe you have undue expectations that you and your colleagues will discover some quiet gem in the Frontier section at 8:00 am at the Holiday Village, or see a short that you and the entire audience know just changed your lives, and you will walk out into the harsh bright sun and feel different. You kind of know this is going to happen. If you are open to it, and go to see something that is hard to see—that only the devoted core really wants to see— it might happen. And you will walk out into the sun and put on your ridiculous sunglasses and not look at the people around you much, but you are smiling and nodding, and you know your lives were just changed in some small way.

One must stay at cool at Sundance. One must lower one’s expectations. One must find one’s true fellows in the dark in the Library, or in the Temple Theater at a film you accidently bought a ticket to, or showed up at the wrong theater for, and the volunteers didn’t notice when they took your ticket. The lights go down and the credits roll and you decide to go with the flow.

That’s when you are the most open, when you have no preconceptions, no context except what the film provides you and what you and the audience bring to it. You are truly experiencing the film.

Once in awhile, if you are lucky a few times during the festival, you start out in a really bad mood but after the Q&A with a brilliant first-time director you walk out into the grey sky and crazy big snow flakes land on your eyelashes and it’s very quiet. You get on the shuttle. You just smile and nod, not wanting to be the first to wreck this feeling with words. You and everybody else in that theater have just seen something that changed you. That’s why we love film. That’s why we come to Sundance.

—Kim Bender

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